February 22, 2024

United, Midcourt shine at Santa Anita

United (right) edges Cleopatra's Strike (center) and Oscar Dominguez in the San Marcos © BENOIT PHOTO

Good fortune finally smiled upon United, who secured his first stakes triumph in a thrilling renewal of the $200,000 San Marcos (G2) on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

The 5-year-old gelded son of Giant’s Causeway was overdue to land a major prize of his own. In his previous two runs, United had lost the Hollywood Turf Cup (G2) by a neck and the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) by a head to Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar.

These gutsy but ultimately losing efforts stamped United as the 4-5 favorite for the San Marcos, and he gallantly delivered on those expectations. Regular rider Flavien Prat elected to keep United outside horses and out of trouble in the 1 1/4-mile turf test, allowing United to settle a few lengths off the pace in fourth place behind solid fractions of :23.31, :46.92, and 1:10.99.

It proved to be a winning strategy. When the real running began, United was the first of the deep closers to strike, rallying past the tiring pacesetters to seize a narrow lead. Second choice Cleopatra’s Strike and Hollywood Turf Cup winner Oscar Dominguez were likewise gaining ground on the far outside, but United persevered under urging from Prat, forging clear in the final yards to post a well-measured half-length victory in 1:59.04.

Cleopatra’s Strike edged Oscar Dominguez by a neck for the runner-up spot, while Brown Storm, Multiplier, and Chosen Vessel completed a compact finish that saw all six runners separated by just 1 1/2 lengths.

“I think I made a mistake last time (in the Hollywood Turf Cup). I was trying to keep him covered up and it didn’t end up the way I wanted and I found myself too far back,” Prat explained to Santa Anita. “Today we broke off and we were in the race (early). He just (kept running) to the wire.”

Winning trainer Richard Mandella agreed that the trip made all the difference for United, who races in the colors of LNJ Foxwoods. “You could see there wasn’t a lot of pace in the race. He’s got a big lumbering stride and you don’t want to get in the way of it. We just let him cruise along and that worked out well.”

A trip to Dubai for the Mar. 28 Sheema Classic (G1) on Dubai World Cup night at Meydan could be next on the agenda for United, who ranks as racing’s newest millionaire with earnings of $1,013,549.

Later on the Santa Anita card, Midcourt landed a decisive triumph in the $200,000 San Pasqual (G2), a victory due in large part to a change in racing tactics.

A front-running winner of Del Mar’s Native Diver (G3) in November, Midcourt was compromised by a slow start when rallying to finish third in the Dec. 28 San Antonio (G2) at Santa Anita. A return to free-running tactics under jockey Victor Espinoza triggered a major rebound in the San Pasqual as Midcourt led all the way to score by 3 1/2 lengths.

“With him you never know how he is gonna perform coming out of the gate,” explained Espinoza. “He could go either way. Today he wanted to run, he broke not very quick, but when I encouraged him to go he wanted to do his own thing. I wasn’t going to take him out of his race so I just let him run and cruise around.”

Midcourt soon settled into a comfortable rhythm, posting fractions of :23.50, :47.31, and 1:11.26, and the rest was history. Two Thirty Five and Combatant settled for the minor awards as Midcourt cruised to the finish line in 1:48.49, a sharp time for 1 1/8 miles. King Abner, Restrainedvengence, Instagrand, Roadster, California Street, and Bold Endeavor trailed the field.

“When I took the lead and was able to open up one or two lengths that was the key for him,” added Espinoza. “We were in a good spot and in great shape all the way around, to be able to control the race that was enough for him.”

A 5-year-old son of Midnight Lute, Midcourt is trained by John Shirreffs for C R K Stable. A $450,000 yearling purchase, Midcourt is improving like a fine wine and boasts five victories from his last six starts, good for earnings of $342,695.

“Victor wasn’t sure if he was going to go to the lead or sit off the pace, but the horse put himself in the race,” Shirreffs said. “Yes, it is gratifying to see him make the lead, relax and finish like he did. He’s been a project, but a good project.”

Shirreffs indicated the Mar. 7 Santa Anita H. (G1) would be the next target for Midcourt.